Saturday, February 28, 2015

You Have Searched Me and Known Me: Government Surveillance and Religion

Every month, it seems, there are new revelations about government spying. In February the news broke that Canada’s electronic spy agency has been collecting millions of e-mails from Canadians to federal government officials. In England, a new website has been set up by Privacy International to let people know if they have been illegally spied on by the U.S. or UK governments. Is there a religious response to government spying? That's what I wanted to know a few years ago when I first wrote on this topic.

“You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.”

No, that’s not a description of how governments around the world are conducting surveillance. As many Christians and Jews know, it’s the opening verses of Psalm 130, a Psalm of wonder at the omniscience, or all-knowing, of God.

In general, believers seem OK with that. But how do they feel about governments practicing a more earthly kind of all-knowingness by spying on their citizens?

To date, most of the discussion about electronic spying have taken place in the realms of law, politics and ethics. Less has been said from the point of view of religion. 

One person who addressed this subject from a religious perspective was Daniel Schultz in Christian Century.

In the article, he suggested that people of faith should be wary when governments say they do this kind of spying because they say they want to keep us safe.

“Only God can provide ultimate security,” he says, adding that anything else is an idol.

Belief in God’s omniscience doesn’t mean we will be kept safe from all harm, he says. Instead, it provides a “transformative support and presence amid our vulnerability . . . we do ourselves a disservice when we give in to the temptation to make ourselves as safe as possible at the expense of freedom.”

Another person who addressed the topic was Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL.

Writing in First Things, George says that “persons of faith should be deeply concerned” about government spying “not because privacy is an absolute end in itself, but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity.”

Citing Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to freedom to practice religion, he says that such spying is an affront to religious freedom, which “presupposes the recognition of privacy.”

But is it such a big deal? Who cares if the government knows if you go to church, or what you believe?

If you happen to be Muslim, it is a big deal. It can also be a big problem for people of faith who oppose militarism, nuclear weapons or who are critical of various government policies on things like the environment or refugees.

The great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—believe that everything we do is known by God. But some of their followers are becoming less comfortable with various governments trying to do the same thing.

As George noted, people of faith don’t mind being watched. We just want to be people who “only want to look up, not over shoulders.”

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